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Tirana

Sunday, July 20th 2008

I tried to get a bus to Struga but it was too full, so I grabbed a taxi. The driver was very friendly and spoke some German, so we had some broken conversation. He was an Albanian Macedonian, and had spent some time working in Munich. He feigned disgust when I told him I'd only been in the country a few days and I was leaving already. He told me all the places I should go if I came back.

At Struga I got a bus to Tirana. On board were an Australian family, the children born in Australia but the parents born in Albania, and returning for a family wedding. I chatted to them on the way. They'd brought a mountain of home-made food with them for the journey, and insisted that I share it. I was very well fed.

We crossed the border. It turned out there was a one euro fee for any non-local to enter Albania. I didn't have any Euros with me, but the Australians saved me, telling me what the border guard was saying to me and giving me a Euro so I could get in.

As soon as we crossed the border, it was clear we were somewhere a little bit different. There were bunkers everywhere, on every hill and in every valley - a relic of the not very distant past when Albania was as closed to the outside world and as militaristic and paranoid as North Korea is now.

It was hot and stuffy on the bus. I fell asleep for a while, and when I woke I found that one of the Australians, sat next to me, had also fallen asleep, and was slumping into my lap. It was a very awkward situation. I avoided dealing with it by sleeping most of the way to Tirana.

We got to the capital in the late evening. My map didn't show me where I was, but I navigated by the sun to find my way into town. All the buildings were colourful. A fantastic urban regeneration project had seen all the old Eastern Bloc style concrete boxes repainted in all sorts of pastel shades. The city felt like no other I'd been to on this trip.

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